We all think we know what it is. But do we really?

For clarification, I mean "roleplaying" in the context of RPGs, not other contexts like psychotherapy or things-you-do-in-bed.

For further clarification, I mean "roleplaying" as an action ("We want a game with more roleplaying!"), not as a hobby "I enjoy skiing, eating, and roleplaying").


migrated from rpg.stackexchange.com Sep 21 '10 at 1:46

This question came from our site for gamemasters and players of tabletop, paper-and-pencil role-playing games.

This is a rhetorical question and can have no one real answer. –  anon186 Sep 20 '10 at 17:37
Really? Over in "What RPGs emphasize Roleplaying?" (rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/2834/…), SevenSidedDie believes that the definition of roleplaying is so obvious that it doesn't need discussion. Also, many RPG texts start out with a definition or explanation. I'd like to see what RPG Stack Exchange thinks is the BEST definition of roleplaying. –  Adam Dray Sep 20 '10 at 17:39
The problem is there are two answers: what roleplaying-the-action is and what roleplaying-the-hobby is. They're different and people are conflating them. –  SevenSidedDie Sep 20 '10 at 17:48
I'd argue that the "action" is so nebulous that its not worth talking about here. The whole "What RPGs emphasize Roleplaying" doesn't work because its not being clear on what it wants. D&D Encounters can emphasize roleplaying as much (if not more so) than any personality driven socials et of emchanics. And any social mechanics can be reduced to die rolling. These questions ened a whole lot more definition to be useful and even then I don't think its possible to move beyond the rhetorical. And the rhetorical does not belong here (except maybe as cw) –  anon186 Sep 20 '10 at 17:54
@Jeremiah, perhaps you are unfamiliar with the games that do exactly what you say can't be done. There are social mechanics that can't be reduced to die rolling, and there are mechanics that require roleplaying in such a way (some subtle, some overt) that the player cannot proceed with their turn without doing some actual, factual roleplaying. This may sound alien, but that doesn't make it untrue. –  SevenSidedDie Sep 20 '10 at 17:58
I clarified. I want the roleplaying-the-action. –  Adam Dray Sep 20 '10 at 18:11
I'm incredibly leery of this question: here's why. Different people define roleplaying differently. By privileging any one answer to this question, this site is taking a stand on what roleplaying is. And that seems to me to be a very bad idea when it comes to a contentious question. The example that comes most readily to mind is immersion -- some people avoid it, some people claim you can't be roleplaying if you're not immersed. –  Bryant Sep 20 '10 at 18:25
I don't think this is a good RPG site question either. Good for discussion, but not answers, so perhaps better on Meta. –  SevenSidedDie Sep 20 '10 at 18:51
I think the nebulous, debatable nature of "roleplaying" is exactly what makes this a worthwhile question. It does, however, negate any usefulness of choosing an "official" answer. I suppose a "poll and discuss" topic like this is somewhat outside the purpose of Stack Exchange, but it will be interesting to see what kind of results it gets. I trust we can all bear the revelation of opinions different from our own. –  Matt Sheridan Sep 20 '10 at 19:00
Is it acceptable as a CW? –  Adam Dray Sep 20 '10 at 19:28
If we don't address this question now, where do we point people to when they bring it up in other questions about roleplaying? =) –  Adam Dray Sep 20 '10 at 19:29
CW seems pretty sensible to me. –  Bryant Sep 20 '10 at 19:37
Made it a CW. =) –  Adam Dray Sep 20 '10 at 20:03
Moved to meta, as it is more of a foundational question about community scope - and is likely to be a lot of blathering we don't want signal-to-noising the main site. –  mxyzplk Sep 21 '10 at 1:47
Gotta say--I don't see how trying to come up with what is most commonly meant by a term is a problem. People use all kinds of terms all kinds of ways, but when we talk about what a word "means," we're talking about the most common usage, which is what the voting system explicitly measures. The most heated debates I've seen on the site have been about what is likely to cause heated debate, not about any actual topics. I haven't read everything, but that's my impression. –  Numenetics Sep 22 '10 at 0:21

5 Answers 5

At it's most basic level, roleplaying is simply the act of making decisions based on your assumed character's means, motivations and current situation.

Anything beyond that is gravy: speaking with funny voices, using first-person voice, adding detailed narrative description, etc. These things are often desirable, but they're not the essence of roleplaying.

I think if you amend this to portaying the making of decisions and actions based on your assumed characters means ... etc would work well. I think its quite possible to run the Mythic Character Emulator that rolls all decisions and actions randomly and still roleplay. –  Logos7 Sep 22 '10 at 2:28
I'm not entirely familiar with this Mythic Character Emulator, but I disagree. If all you're doing is portraying the decisions made for you, you're pretty much just reading from a script. That's acting. Roleplaying is about getting inside the head of your character, seeing things the way the character would see them, and making the important decisions yourself. –  Mike Riverso Sep 22 '10 at 7:17
rolling dice randomly is in no way like reading from a script. I think Acting and Roleplaying are pretty two words for the same (or simular ) things. I get some people like immersion, but honestly there's people out there who don't. (like me) I don't see why you guys get to make all the defs. –  Logos7 Sep 23 '10 at 0:43
I'm not talking about immersion. I'm just talking about being an active participant in the decision-making process. If you're not making the decisions, then you're just watching the character do his or her thing, much like reading a story or watching a movie. Sure, that can be interesting, but it's not roleplaying, per se. –  Mike Riverso Sep 23 '10 at 5:48
Disagree. Many roleplayers will agree with it, but I think it's a broader church than that. For one thing, decisions are not always "based on your assumed character's means, motivations and current situation". Sometimes they're based on resources that have no in-play correlate, like Fate Points. Sometimes they're based on judgements about how the story should go, and not tied to the character. Some RPGs don't even assign one character per player. I would say something like "roleplaying is the activity of communally exploring a shared fictional reality", but that could probably use some work. –  Dave Hallett Nov 18 '10 at 0:10

Strictly speaking, role-playing is the act of playing a role. Usually this means making decisions and taking actions in a way that is consistent with a character within an RPG, and/or acting like that character. Providing elaborate descriptions of actions taken (beyond a simple mechanical "I attack it") is also usually considered part of role-playing.

"Role-playing" is also used colloquially to describe the act of taking part in an RPG, whether or not the session or game in question actually encourages or supports the stricter "in character" definition of the term.

Some players use the term "roll-playing" to differentiate between play modes that focus on the gameplay and play modes that focus on emulating the characters, however this term has a bit of a pejorative taint to it.

And its that "rollplaying" dig that always starts the arguments. Roleplaying is a colloquial term as its used in our hobby. Folks should just let it alone and say that they really mean. Not "What games enhance roleplaying" but "What games focus on enhancing the immersive experience" or "What games have emchanics that can help in Character simulation." –  anon186 Sep 21 '10 at 14:54
@Jeremiah The problem is that most people don't understand what "immersive experience" or "character simulation" mean, and wouldn't come up with those terms on their own. Discouraging "rollplaying" (and the snobbishness that often accompanies it) is fine, but throwing out a well-understood term is taking things a little too far. –  AceCalhoon Sep 21 '10 at 15:18
Roleplaying is not a well udnerstoo term. Itsa catch bag. I'm just saying don't torture the poor word to make it mean things that are not universal. Which people are trying to do. Roleplaying is one of those terms we should be careful about and use lowest common denominator. Which is "Stuff I do when playing pretend in an rpg with my friends." –  anon186 Sep 21 '10 at 17:56
@jeremiah Again, there is clear consensus here on a common meaning for it. In addition, there is no clear alternative... I've been roleplaying for well over a decade now, and have never heard the terms "immersive experience" or "character simulation" prior to today. As a general term it works fine: in the few cases where an asker isn't interested in a subsection of it ("I don't care about immersion or funny voices"), they can clarify their intent through comments and edits. –  AceCalhoon Sep 21 '10 at 18:37
@AceCalhoon Please look up the definition of consensus. We need to avoid ancedotal (and please don't call up your experience, I'm embarrassed for you). If a term is confusing we avoid it. And roleplaying, based on whats going on, is one we should avoid and be more specific. –  anon186 Sep 21 '10 at 18:42
@Jeremiah Three people posted the same answer to this question (myself, veritascitor, and Jadasc). Mxyzplk's answer isn't far off. Veritaqscitor's answer has dramatically more upvotes than any other answer in this thread AND a higher net score than any other answer. That's a lot of agreement for a meta thread. –  AceCalhoon Sep 21 '10 at 18:57
If SO had a question about a commonly-misused term, would they debate whether it would cause confusion, or would they just answer the question for the sake of educating people? Consider that "What does 'roleplaying' mean to the average RPGer" is not the same question as "What does the word 'roleplaying' mean in English." –  SevenSidedDie Sep 22 '10 at 15:33

Roleplaying means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and I think that's good.

To many people, "roleplaying" is battlematting around - "I'm playing what's labeled as a roleplaying game, and it's about minis combat, therefore minis combat is roleplaying." Or creating a compelling story (where that can mean interesting, or realistic, or...).

Often by "roleplaying," when people try to stress it as a distinct activity within a RPG, it often means more "character-focused" roleplaying, though that also has sub-variations people don't agree on - "character simulation" vs "actor stance" vs "immersion" for example. We need a better, more specific name for this activity, which may be a mix of the following.

  • "Character simulation" encompasses games where there are personality mechanics that affect your behavior. (Pendragon's a good example.)

  • "Acting" is, well, acting out your character. When people say "funny voices!" this is what they mean.

  • "Immersion" is being able to actually put yourself inside your character. It's different from acting in that it's more "method acting" as opposed to "just acting."

Anyway, history shows that trying to use the term "roleplaying" for "character portrayal" will inevitably end in this kind of flame war from those who think saying that their activities they prefer in an RPG are being looked down upon because they're not in that definition. Therefore we should avoid that. And besides, even "roleplaying" isn't precise, as seen above.

I propose that questions etc. about "roleplaying" say what they actually mean. "What games mechanically reward portraying your character's personality quirks" is a both less hassle-magnetic title and is also really precise. And it is distinct from "What games encourage character immersion" or "What games contain prescriptive personality mechanics, all good questions that do not benefit from conflation.

"To many people, "roleplaying" is battlematting around" -- I think when someone asks how they can "roleplay" better, or are looking for a game that "encourages roleplaying" we can safely assume they don't mean battlematting around given context. This isn't belittling the battlematters at all... Common usage means they have every right to call themselves "roleplayers," and their leisure activity is still as good as any other. –  AceCalhoon Sep 21 '10 at 13:25
With that said, there is a lot of convergence in the answers to this question. Veritascitor, Jasdac, and myself have all provided extremely similar answers, and your answer isn't that far off. Yours is a bit more weighted in the acting side, but it's within spitting distance of the rest. It looks to me like most people have a pretty good idea of what's meant by this term. If a questioner explicitly doesn't want some portion of this spectrum, they should clarify... But in general it seems fine. –  AceCalhoon Sep 21 '10 at 13:29
Or, for sanity sake people could say what they mean instead of using a horribly vague term. If you mean Immersion, say it. if you mean acting, say it. Those are fine activities, but they really deserve to be called out as what they are instead of being lumped under a term that encompasses a lot more and frankly is bait for controversy that doesn't belong here. –  anon186 Sep 21 '10 at 14:52
@Jeremiah This meta thread is not making the term "roleplaying" seem particularly vague. One answer is getting quite a lot of up votes, and there are many similar independently created answers. –  AceCalhoon Sep 21 '10 at 15:40
The point isn't what the right sense of the word "roleplaying" is. It's the conflict that using that word in that way engenders. Strangely, we all here agree what it means yet it still caused a flame flare-up in the comments on several questions. Quod erat demonstrandum. –  mxyzplk Sep 21 '10 at 17:06
@mxyzplk I think most of the flames were of the "Omg this will cause a flame war!" variety. Take a breath, let things ride, and deal with the flamers (or posts that are explicitly argumentative/demeaning). Banning discussion of roleplaying from the roleplaying StackExchange severely injures the usefulness of the site. –  AceCalhoon Sep 21 '10 at 17:21
No one's saying ban discussion of roleplaying. We're saying that if people can be more specific about what they mean and not use a blanket term that is also used to mean "everything that happens in an RPG - look, it's there in the name," it will turn out better. Heed or ignore that. –  mxyzplk Sep 21 '10 at 17:25
@mxyzplk You can discuss roleplaying all you like, as long as you don't call it roleplaying? –  AceCalhoon Sep 21 '10 at 17:28
Yes, because other people don't liek "roleplaying" being used exclusively to mean the in-character part. Oh, look, that question resulted in an edit war and email complaints already. Sigh. –  mxyzplk Sep 21 '10 at 22:13
@mxyzplk: praps the flames and editwars have a common source? –  ExTSR Sep 22 '10 at 0:08
@ExTSR - I am glad you reopened that question, stated better perhaps; I will personally police the goon squad better and I'll vote to reopen if it's closed for some reason. I think it is in general good to say what you mean when you say "roleplaying," because e.g. people can take it to mean "immersion" when you mean "acting" etc. and that perhaps people were just trying to be helpful there - but I do agree that editing "over" an OP's wishes is not acceptable. –  mxyzplk Sep 22 '10 at 2:19

Two things, typically.

  1. Making decisions about in-game activity in accordance with diagetic (in-fiction) factors, rather than tactical or social ones.

  2. Adding flavor and color to the proceedings of a game through persona play.


I have always thought the collaborative storytelling is what set apart the use of roleplaying in games from its use in training or psychology. It is not an individual activity but the interaction of all the players with each other. It also encompasses all of the activities that contribute to the shared narrative. If the group is talking about the pivotal natural 20 die roll in an epic battle months or years latter, then that is roleplaying.


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